Give Larry Bird this: He’s transparent and consistent. He has long argued that coaches grow stale, and he fired himself after three seasons as the Pacers’ coach — ending in a loss to the Lakers in the 2000 Finals.
A year ago, he announced to the world that he didn’t really want Roy Hibbert on his team anymore. The league was trending small, and Bird was going to drag Indiana into the cool kids clique — even if he didn’t end up giving coach Frank Vogel the right players to make that happen.
Last week he told The Indianapolis Star he wasn’t sure about Vogel’s future but didn’t want to leave him hanging — even after a fit of coaching musical chairs left only New York, Houston and Sacramento with openings. Two of those aren’t exactly atop anyone’s “Most Appealing Jobs” list.
And so today, Vogel is somehow out of the job he held for five-plus seasons. The Pacers won 58 percent of their games under Vogel, made the playoffs every year but the season after Paul George‘s horrific leg injury and pushed Miami to the brink in back-to-back conference finals.
There is a weird dissonance swirling around coaching tenures. Bird and others talk about how players naturally start tuning out coaches if they stay too long — the Scott Skiles effect. That’s probably true in some cases, though only three players — George, Ian Mahinmi, and George Hill — remain from the 2012-13 team that took Miami the distance before burping away the series with a heap of embarrassing turnovers. Those are important players, but they are only three. Vogel also doesn’t seem like a coach who would lose the room. Players like him and he’s relentlessly positive.
But some of the same people who wring their hands about the Skiles effect talk from the other side of their mouths about the importance of continuity, especially as player contracts get shorter. Oh, what we would give for what Gregg Popovich, Rick Carlisle, and Erik Spoelstra have been empowered to build! Backing coaches through the ups and downs sends a message of organizational coherence: We don’t overreact to short-term blips, and the players don’t run the show.
Everyone pays lip service to striving for that sort of stability — everyone but Bird, apparently. The Pacers had a chance to evolve and grow with a young, dynamic coach, and they’ve punted it to hire a new voice.
Vogel was never the most adaptable coach, but that lack of adaptability birthed an identity: smashmouth basketball. The Pacers played big, with David West and Hibbert, and smothered teams with long-armed defense at every position. When teams like the Heat and Knicks went small against Indiana, the Pacers stuck to their guns. It mostly worked. It got them further than their talent level suggested they should have gotten.
Hibbert for a brief time unnerved LeBron James at the rim. It was fashionable to dismiss those Pacers as the overhyped product of a watered-down Eastern Conference, but they generally played well against the West and gave the Heat all they could handle. Hibbert has lost his way since leaving the Pacers. So has Lance Stephenson. Does Vogel get any credit for bringing out the best in them and for using Stephenson as a holdover starter running point on second units? What about the complete transformation of Mahinmi from rock-handed bozo to viable pick-and-roll dive man?
Vogel didn’t reach everyone — Evan Turner and Gerald Green bombed in Indy — but the big names who left haven’t looked the same. Among those big names: West, who lit $11 million on fire to ditch Indiana and let everyone know on the way out that he didn’t appreciate Bird throwing Hibbert under the bus.
Bird wants to play smaller and faster, with more pass-pass-pass continuity. The path there, in his view, is clear: Dan Burke, longtime Pacers defensive coordinator, can maintain an elite defense, while some scoring guru can replace Vogel and reinvent the Pacers on the other end. That could well happen, but Vogel has done enough that Bird should at least have looked at another solution: Keep Vogel and pluck an offensive-minded assistant to help the Pacers evolve. Vogel is only 42. He’s going to get better at this.
And it’s not as if Vogel was some dunderhead about offense. He made real adjustments. The Heat credited Indiana for being the first team to figure out Miami’s blitzing defense by having West slip picks, snag easy passes and survey the floor in a four-on-three:
“They used our aggressiveness against us,” Shane Battier told me during the 2014 conference finals. “They were the first team to really do that.”
Vogel used Hibbert in the pick-and-roll much more against Miami, knowing that if the big fella could just catch the ball in space, he would have only a little guy to finish over. They found creative ways around Miami’s fronting post defense, though they could never sustain them over full series. On the other end, he gradually changed the way West guarded the pick-and-roll and saved the Pacers’ teetering 2014 season in the first round by switching more against Atlanta’s shooters.
But in the big picture, Bird’s right: The Pacers, and Vogel, have long needed a boost on offense. They were the worst offensive team in the league, non-Sixers division, over the last few months of 2014, as their dream season imploded. At times it seemed as if they had no understanding of spacing; Stephenson and George would chill 2 feet inside the 3-point arc, instead of sliding behind it, allowing their defenders to clog driving lanes.
Too many possessions died after one action — or even none:
The Pacers were habitually slow making the extra pass, allowing scrambled defenses to recover and blanket them. There were times against Atlanta and Miami in the playoffs when they appeared to forget how to pass and catch basketballs. They had trouble in close games, especially this season.
Some of this was on the players. Having two post-up brutes will clog any lane. And it’s not as if Vogel and his staff weren’t on Stephenson, George and Hill to space the floor properly and cut more. Players can be hard to change. Ask Scott Brooks and Billy Donovan.
But some of it has to fall on the coach, too. Vogel never ran the most inventive stuff, and his rotations were inflexible. He might have lost his job in Game 5 of Indiana’s first-round loss to the Raptors, when the Pacers entered the fourth quarter up by 13, trotted out the same helpless bench-heavy unit that hemorrhaged points in the second quarter and watched that unit vomit up half their lead in two minutes.
That was an astonishing misstep from a really good coach. That lineup actually expanded Indy’s lead in the prior game, and when that minor miracle happens, the Pacers generally win. But it’s a long shot, something I’ve harped on all season (see point No. 10), and Vogel should have mothballed it after watching it poop the bed in the second quarter of Game 5.
When a front office is on the fence about a coach, one bad decision can tip it toward a firing. Monty Williams might still be the head guy in New Orleans today had the Pelicans not choked away a giant lead in Game 3 of their first-round series against the Warriors last season amid a haze of confusion and awful choices. Vogel will always wonder about that night in Toronto.
But if Bird wanted to transform the Pacers into some small-ball machine, he needed to give Vogel better players. If he really expected this Indy roster to win more than 45 games, maybe he should have tried coaching it next season.
To play smaller, the Pacers added Monta Ellis, C.J. Miles and Chase Budinger, who was a player Bird had long coveted, per several league sources. Turns out Budinger can’t really play anymore after a bunch of knee surgeries everyone knew about. Ellis was coming off knee surgery and never found his comfort zone on offense in his first year as a Pacer. He remains laughably bad on defense; Burke and Vogel deserve a ton of credit for the Pacers finishing third in points allowed per possession while giving heavy minutes to Ellis, Miles and a rookie big man, Myles Turner, learning NBA defense as a teenager.
Indiana started the year with Miles as the nominal power forward. On those nights when Miles made a million crazy 3s, it looked great; the Pacers could spread the floor, and Miles battled post-up brutes so that George could envelope top wing scorers.
Only, it didn’t work. Opponents outscored that lineup by almost seven points per 100 possessions, a disastrous margin. Indiana won early-season games mostly because of George’s brilliance, Hill’s shooting and the work Mahinmi, Turner, Lavoy Allen and Jordan Hill did when any two of them shared the floor in traditional lineups.
If given more time, those Miles-centric small-ball groups might have worked. They looked promising, but Miles battled through several injuries, lost his shooting touch and became a liability on defense at any position.
Indiana had no backup point guard. The rest of their small-ball options — Rodney Stuckey and Solomon Hill — were nonshooters who couldn’t spread the floor. Even Turner, the player for whom Bird pined as he rode the pine, never developed into a real floor-spacer. He made three 3s all season and spent most of his time either in the dunker spot along the baseline or popping midrange jumpers.
The Pacers were one shooter short of being a dynamic small-ball team. Going small with poor shooting brings all the deficits of downsizing, and none of the advantages. It just makes you smaller. Maybe they’ll find that shooter this offseason. Maybe it’s a healthy Miles. Maybe it’s Solomon Hill after his post-season hot streak, though even then, he spent a lot of time hanging around the elbows.
A lot of Bird’s fretting, and the major questions about Indiana’s future, revolve around Turner. The Pacers could be a deadly small-ish team with Turner at center; Jonas Valanciunas struggled to chase him around the perimeter on the pick-and-roll, and having a legit shooter at center would open the paint for a wing like Solomon Hill or Ellis.
Turner is exploding with talent, but he’s plainly not ready to anchor a defense. The Raptors exposed his shaky footwork in the first round, juking him off-balance as ball-handlers blew by him. That’s why a partnership between Turner and Mahinmi makes more sense in the short-term; Mahinmi is a shot-blocking menace — SMOTHERED CHICKEN!!! — who can slice to the basket on offense while Turner spaces the floor.
But Turner just turned 20, and he’s not quite a floor-spacer yet. That combo is a year or two away from really jelling. Unfortunately for the Pacers, Mahinmi is a free agent in July, putting them in the awkward position of having to decide now whether Turner is ready for starting center duty.
Bird acquired Mahinmi for Darren Collison in a 2012 trade a lot of folks pilloried. It worked out fine. A lot of Bird’s moves have worked out nicely. He killed the draft, snagging George, Hibbert, and Stephenson at slots that turned out to be low for their talent. If Turner has solved his running gait issues, he’s another great pick.
The Pacers also could have Kawhi Leonard, right now, instead of George Hill. It’s a little unfair to hammer them for that deal. George Hill has been really good for Indiana on a value contract, and if the league knew in 2011 Leonard would be even 70 percent as good as he is, he would never have slipped to No. 15. The Spurs and Pacers had also entered into an informal agreement that if the player San Antonio was targeting — Leonard — fell to Indiana at No. 15, the teams would swap. But Indiana team officials have told me they had Leonard around No. 5 on their own draft board, and that when he fell all the way to No. 15, they thought about scrapping the Spurs deal and just keeping him. Oh well.
Bird flipped Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee, and a first-round pick for Scola, knowing Scola would only play backup minutes on the downslope of his career. Scola is a beloved teammate, but that trade is a net-loss — and was likely to be one from Day 1.
Bird’s record is mixed, just as it is for any front-office chief. But if Bird wanted Vogel to play some hyper-passing small-ball system this season, he didn’t give him the right ingredients to do it.
Bird is well within his rights to ditch a successful coach in hopes of finding one who better fits his vision, and perhaps the team’s changing identity. It worked in Golden State, and perhaps in Memphis, and it might be working now in Cleveland. Let’s see who Bird hires.
One thing’s for sure: he fired a good young coach with room to grow, for reasons that aren’t precisely clear. Vogel will resurface, and the Rockets, who interviewed him in 2011, need to contact him immediately.
The coaching business is cruel. We all know that. Vogel will get a chance to prove himself in a new spot. It’s time for Bird to prove his chops again now.